Photographs by Danny Kim
During the course of his industrious career, the frenetic West Village restaurateur Gabriel Stulman has mastered almost every casual dining trend in this fickle, fashionably casual restaurant era. He helped pioneer the upscale New American neighborhood-bistro craze (not to mention the upscale-burger craze and upscale-meatball-slider craze) with Joey Campanaro at the Little Owl, and then again at his own popular, tiny West Village restaurant, Joseph Leonard. He’s opened a counter-style restaurant devoted to stylishly casual food (Jeffrey’s Grocery) and a raffish neo-speakeasy joint (Fedora) featuring the nose-to-tail cooking of a young chef from the offal capital of North America, Montreal. You can enjoy very good nouveau-southern cooking in Stulman’s mini dining empire (the crispy ham-hock sandwich at Joseph Leonard) and an endless variety of trendy retro cocktails, many of which are poured by whiskery barkeeps wearing lumberjack shirts.
So it was only a matter of time before Stulman got around to tackling the most durable of all casual New York dining trends: rustic Italian food. His new restaurant is called Perla, and like his other establishments, it occupies a snug little space within walking distance of Sheridan Square. The bar serves drinks with catchy names like Tombstone Sunday Nights and Meet Me in Laredo. The clubby, beamy room is decorated with tastefully curated retro tchotchkes (faded black-and-white photos, framed antique menus) and lined with banquettes covered in shiny crimson leather. Party girls graze at the bar on esoteric varieties of handmade pasta. Obscure peasant delicacies like roasted lamb’s head are served as occasional specials. And the late-night bar menu includes boutique mushroom pizzas fired in that great totem of the Italian nouveau-rustico movement, the wood-burning oven.
Perla’s chef, Michael Toscano, used to run the kitchen at the fine Eataly meat restaurant, Manzo, and before that he worked at Babbo for the great nouveau-rustico godhead himself, Mario Batali. In accordance with the Batali doctrine, Toscano divides his menu into a dizzying number of sections (six plus dessert), each of which is packed with enough relentlessly hearty food to feed a family of Calabrian peasants for a week. On one visit, my tasters and I enjoyed crostini topped with lardo and baccala, followed by waxy strips of prosciutto made from a pig that, our waiter jauntily informed us, was raised on a diet of vegetables and whey. We picked at stacks of potato chips all’Amatriciana covered with a powder that includes pulverized chile flakes (among other things), and tasted so many antipasti (rosy beef tartare Piemontese, soft chunks of braised octopus, wood-fired blue prawns finished in brown butter) that even some of the most seasoned fatsos at my table were beginning to feel a little strain when the pastas arrived.
The pastas we sampled—after sips of water and several restorative gasps of air—were decent enough (try the agnolotti stuffed with beef short ribs and testa, and the eggy, pancetta-laced cavatelli), although several of them (the fazzoletti Bolognese, the slightly too sticky gnocchi, the spaghetti with rock shrimp) seemed to have been poured with the same thick, faintly pedestrian tomato sauce. If you’re wise, you’ll save your calories for the secondi items, like the plump fillet of red snapper in a subtle tomato brodetto, or the monkfish, which the kitchen garnishes with a black-truffle vinaigrette. I’ve never been a fan of that old rustico standby, roasted rabbit (it’s wrapped in pancetta here, in a vain attempt to alleviate its generic blandness), but the sweetly crisped roast duck is a thing of beauty, and so is the chicken cacciatore for two, which is roasted whole in the oven and presented to the table, in high peasant style, with its gnarled claws still attached.
Toscano is one of the more gifted nose-to-tail cooks in the city, which means you can also get giant helpings of grilled beef tongue at Perla (“How can anyone eat this much tongue?” one of the fatsos gasped), and platters of pink lamb loin served with tiny, deliciously fatty lamb breast on the side. The world-class steaks include a nicely charred New York strip (with a mélange of escarole and chanterelles and bone marrow), and a superb bone-in rib eye for two, which is fired in the wood-burning oven and piled over a mass of sweet, tangy borlotti beans splashed with balsamic and fat drippings. Then there’s the lamb’s-head special, which is roasted whole and brought to the table propped upright on a butcher board like some giant, medieval totem. The cheeks are the best part, as every rustico veteran knows, and if you’re feeling brave, you can dip them into a smear of fresh Robiolina cheese, which the chef leavens with lamb’s brains.
I suppose it’s possible not to eat like a drunken Viking at Perla, but as a dutiful professional, I never managed the trick. My daintier guests assured me that there are vegetable options to pick at in between the pasta and secondi courses (sautéed Brussels sprouts with yellow foot mushrooms and goat’s-milk cheese, arugula salad, good funghi misti and cauliflower contorni, or “side dishes”), and if you feel like subsisting on fresh oysters at the bar (Island Creeks from Massachusetts for $3 apiece, say), you can do that, too. I have dim memories of one or two relatively light desserts, like sorbetti flavored with grapefruit and Campari, and a snow-colored wheel of panna cotta that looked lighter than it was thanks to an accompaniment of fennel shavings and grapefruit. But the best way to end dinner at this robust, polished, slightly formulaic ristorante is with a wedge of the house polenta apple-and-fig upside-down cake, which is as elegant, in its stolid way, as a classic tarte Tatin, and nearly twice as thick.